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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 1

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-6

Psalms 1:1-6

THE Psalter may be regarded as the heart’s echo to the speech of God, the manifold music of its windswept strings as God’s breath sweeps across them. Law and Prophecy are the two main elements of that speech, and the first two psalms, as a double prelude to the book, answer to these, the former setting forth the blessedness of loving and keeping the law, and the latter celebrating the enthronement of Messiah. Jewish tradition says that they were originally one, and a well-attested reading of Acts 13:33 quotes "Thou art my Son" as part of "the first Psalm." The diversity of subject makes original unity improbable, but possibly our present first Psalm was prefixed, unnumbered.

Its theme, the blessedness of keeping the law, is enforced by the juxtaposition of two sharply contrasted pictures, one in bright light, another in deep shadow, and each heightening the other. Ebal and Gerizim face one another.

The character and fate of the lover of the law are sketched in Psalms 1:1-3, and that of the "wicked" in Psalms 1:4-6.

"How abundantly is that word Blessed multiplied in the Book of Psalms! The book seems to be made out of that word, and the foundation raised upon that Word, for it is the first word of the book. But in all the book there is not one Woe" (Donne).

It is usually taken as an exclamation, but may equally well be a simple affirmation, and declares a universal truth even more strongly, if so regarded. The characteristics which thus bring blessedness are first described negatively, and that order is significant. As long as there is so much evil in the world, and society is what it is, godliness must be largely negative, and its possessors "a people whose laws are different from all people that be on earth." Live fish swim against the stream; dead ones go with it.

The tender graces of the devout soul will not flourish unless there be a wall of close-knit and unparticipating opposition round them, to keep off nipping blasts. The negative clauses present a climax, notwithstanding the unquestionable correctness of one of the grounds on which that has been denied-namely, the practical equivalence of "wicked" and "sinner."

Increasing closeness and permanence of association are obvious in the progress from walking to standing and from standing to sitting. Increasing boldness in evil is marked by the progress from counsel to way, or course of life, and thence to scoffing. Evil purposes come out in deeds, and deeds are formularised at last in bitter speech. Some men scoff because they have already sinned. The tongue is blackened and made sore by poison in the system. Therefore goodness will avoid the smallest conformity with evil, as knowing that if the hem of the dress or the tips of the hair be caught in the cruel wheels, the whole body will be drawn in. But these negative characteristics are valuable mainly for their efficacy in contributing to the positive, as the wall round a young plantation is there for the sake of what grows behind it. On the other hand, these positive characteristics, and eminently that chief one of a higher love, are the only basis for useful abstinence. Mere conventional, negative virtue is of little power or worth unless it flow from a strong set of the soul in another direction.

"So did not I" is good and noble when we can go on to say, as Nehemiah did, "because of the fear of God." The true way of floating rubbish out is to pour water in. Delight in the law will deliver from delight in the counsel of the wicked. As the negative, so the positive begins with the inward man. The main thing about all men is the direction of their "delight." Where do tastes run? what pleases them most? and where are they most at ease? Deeds will follow the current of desires, and be right if the hidden man of the heart be right. To the psalmist, that law was revealed by Pentateuch and prophets; but the delight in it, in which he recognises the germ of godliness, is the coincidence of will and inclination with the declared will of God, however declared. In effect, he reduces perfection to the same elements as the other psalmist who sang, "I delight to do Thy will, yea, Thy law is within my heart." The secret of blessedness is self-renunciation, -

A love to lose my will in His,

And by that loss be free."

Thoughts which are sweet will be familiar.

The command to Joshua is the instinct of the devout man. In the distractions and activities of the busy day the law beloved will be with him, illuminating his path and shaping his acts. In hours of rest it will solace weariness and renew strength. That habit of patient, protracted brooding on the revelation of God’s will needs to be cultivated. Men live meanly because they live so fast. Religion lacks depth and volume because it is not fed by hidden springs.

The good man’s character being thus all condensed into one trait, the psalm next gathers his blessedness up in one image. The tree is an eloquent figure to Orientals, who knew water as the one requisite to turn desert into garden. Such a life as has been sketched will be rooted and steadfast. "Planted" is expressed by a word which suggests fixity. The good man’s life is deeply anchored, and so rides out storms. It goes down through superficial fleeting things to that Eternal Will, and so stands unmoved and upright when winds howl. Scotch firs lift massive, corrugated boles, and thrust out wide, gnarled branches clothed in steadfast green, and look as if they could face any tempest, but their roots run laterally among the surface gravel, and therefore they go down before blasts which feeble saplings, that strike theirs vertically, meet unharmed.

Such a life is fed and refreshed. The law of the Lord is at once soil and stream. In the one aspect fastening a life to it gives stability; in the other, freshening and means of growth. Truly loved, that Will becomes, in its manifold expressions, as the divided irrigation channels through which a great river is brought to the roots of each plant. If men do not find it life giving as rivers of water in a dry place, it is because they do not delight in it. Opposed, it is burdensome and harsh; accepted, this sweet image tells what it becomes-the true good, the only thing that really nourishes and reinvigorates. The disciples came back to Jesus, whom they had left too wearied and faint to go with them to the city, and found Him fresh and strong. Their wonder was answered by, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me."

Such a life is vigorous and productive. It would be artificial straining to assign definite meanings to "fruit" and "leaf." All that belongs to vigorous vitality and beauty is included. These come naturally when the preceding condition is fulfilled. This stage of the psalm is the appropriate place for deeds to come into view. By loving fellowship with God and delight in His law the man is made capable of good. His virtues are growths, the outcome of life. The psalm anticipates Christ’s teaching of the good tree bringing forth good fruit, and also tells how His precept of making the tree good is to be obeyed-namely, by transplanting it from the soil of self-will to that of delight in the law. How that transplanting is to be effected it does not tell. "But now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness," and the fruit of the Spirit in "whatsoever things are lovely and of good report" hangs in clusters on the life that has been shifted from the realm of darkness and rooted in Christ. The relation is more intimate still. "I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit."

Such a life will be prosperous. The figure is abandoned here. The meaning is not affected whether we translate "whatsoever he doeth shall prosper," or "whatsoever he shall cause to succeed." That is not unconditionally true now, nor was it then, it referred to what the world calls prospering, as many a sad and questioning strain in the Psalter proves. He whose life is rooted in God will have his full share of foiled plans and abortive hopes, and will often see the fruit nipped by frost or blown green from the boughs, but still the promise is true in its inmost meaning. For what is prosperity? Does the psalmist merely mean to preach the more vulgar form of the doctrine that religion makes the best of both worlds? or are his hopes to be harmonised with experience, by giving a deeper meaning to "prosperity"? They to whom the will of God is delight can never be hurt by evil, for all that meets them expresses and serves that will, and the fellow servants of the King do not wound one another. If a life be rooted in God and a heart delight in His law, that life will be prosperous and that heart will be at rest.

The second half of the psalm gives the dark contrast of the fruitless, rootless life (Psalms 1:4-6). The Hebrew flashes the whole dread antithesis on the view at once by its first word, "Not so," a universal negative, which reverses every part of the preceding picture. "Wicked" is preferable to "ungodly," as the designation of the subjects. Whether we take the root idea of the word to be "restless," as most of the older and many modern commentators do, or "crooked" (Hupfeld), or "loose, flaccid" (Delitzsch), it is the opposite of "righteous," and therefore means one who lives not by the law of God, but by his own will. The psalmist has no need to describe him further nor to enumerate his deeds. The fundamental trait of his character is enough. Two classes only, then, are recognised here. If a man has not God’s uttered will for his governor, he goes into the category of "wicked." That sounds harsh doctrine, and not corresponding to the innumerable gradations of character actually seen. But it does correspond to facts, if they are grasped in their roots of motive and principle. If God be not the supreme delight, and His law sovereign, some other object is men’s delight and aim, and that departure from God taints a life, however fair it may be. It is a plain deduction from our relations to God that lives lived irrespective of Him are sinful, whatever be their complexion otherwise.

The remainder of the psalm has three thoughts-the real nullity of such lives, their consequent disappearance in "the judgment," and the ground of both the blessedness of the one type of character and the vanishing of the other in the diverse attitude of God to each. Nothing could more vividly suggest the essential nothingness of the "wicked" than the contrast of the leafy beauty of the fruit-laden tree and the chaff, rootless, fruitless, lifeless, light, and therefore the sport of every puff of wind that blows across the elevated and open threshing floor.

Such is indeed a true picture of every life not rooted in God and drawing fertility from Him. It is rootless; for what hold fast is there but in Him? or where shall the heart twine its tendrils if not round God’s stable throne? or what basis do fleeting objects supply for him who builds elsewhere than on the enduring Rock? It is fruitless; for what is fruit? There may be much activity and many results satisfying to part of man’s nature and admired by others. One fruit there will be, in character elaborated. But if we ask what ought to be the products of a life, man and God being what they are in themselves and to each other, we shall not wonder if every result of godless energy is regarded by "those clear eyes and perfect judgment" of heaven as barrenness. In the light of these higher demands, achievements hymned by the world’s acclamations seem infinitely small, and many a man, rich in the apparent results of a busy and prosperous life, will find to his dismayed astonishment that he has nothing to show but unfruitful works of darkness. Chaff is fruitless because lifeless.

Its disappearance in the winnowing wind is the consequence and manifestation of its essential nullity. "Therefore" draws the conclusion of necessary transiency. Just as the winnower throws up his shovel full into the breeze, and the chaff goes fluttering out of the floor because it is light, while the wheat falls on the heap because it is solid, so the wind of judgment will one day blow and deal with each man according to his nature. It will separate them, whirling away the one, and not the other. "One shall be taken and the other left." When does this sifting take effect?

The psalmist does not date it. There is a continually operative law of retribution, and there are crises of individual or national life, when the accumulated consequences of evil deeds fall on the doers. But the definite article prefixed to "judgment" seems to suggest some special "day" of separation. It is noteworthy and perhaps illuminative that John the Baptist uses the same figures of the tree and the chaff in his picture of the Messianic judgments, and that epoch may have been in the psalmist’s mind. Whatever the date, this he is sure of-that the wind will rise some time, and that, when it does, the wicked will be blown out of sight. When the judgment comes, the "congregation of the righteous"-that is, the true Israel within Israel, or, to speak in Christian language, the true invisible Church-will be freed from admixture of outward adherents, whose lives give the lie to their profession. Men shall be associated according to spiritual affinity, and "being let go," will "go to their own company" and "place," wherever that may be.

The ground of these diverse fates is the different attitude of God to each life. Each clause of the last verse really involves two ideas, but the pregnant brevity of style states only half of the antithesis in each, suppressing the second member in the first clause and the first member in the second clause, and so making the contrast the more striking by emphasising the cause of an unspoken consequence in the former, and the opposite consequence of an unspoken cause in the latter. "The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous [therefore it shall last]. The Lord knoweth not the way of the wicked [therefore it shall perish]." The way which the Lord knows abides. "Know" is, of course, here used in its full sense of loving knowledge, care, and approval, as in "He knoweth my path" and the like sayings. The direction of the good man’s life is watched, guarded, approved, and blessed by God. Therefore it will not fail to reach its goal. They who walk patiently in the paths which He has prepared will find them paths of peace, and will not tread them unaccompanied, nor ever see them diverging from the straight road to home and rest. "Commit thy way unto the Lord," and let His way be thine, and He shall make thy way prosperous.

The way or course of life which God does not know perishes. A path perishes when, like some dim forest track, it dies out, leaving the traveller bewildered amid impenetrable forests, or when, like some treacherous Alpine track among rotten rocks, it crumbles beneath the tread. Every course of life but that of the man who delights in and keeps the law of the Lord comes to a fatal end, and leads to the brink of a precipice, over which the impetus of descent carries the reluctant foot. "The path of the just is as the shining light, which shineth more and more till the noontide of the day. The way of the wicked is as darkness; they know not at what they stumble."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-1.html.
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